Border Plants for Shade Gardens

Hydrangeas in RVA via The Gracious Posse18

Hydrangea Hydrangea

azalea-bush Azalelas

Caladiums Caladiums

Hosta Hostas

Astilbe Astilbe


Enjoy the feathery plumes of Astilbe in early summer. This tough perennial blooms in shades of burgundy, red, pink, lavender, and white. In addition to the attractive flowers, these shade plants have finely cut foliage, which in many varieties is flushed with bronze. Astilbe grows best in Zones 4-8 and can reach up to 4 feet tall, depending on variety.

Test Garden Tip: Astilbe needs consistently moist soil to thrive, so it’s a good choice for areas that don’t drain well.

Top Picks: ‘Deutschland’ bears pure white flowers; ‘Fanal’ offers dark red plums and bronzy foliage; ‘Sprite’ is an award-winning selection with shell-pink blooms.

Plant it with: ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ ligularia, which features dramatic purple foliage and go

nicotiana Nicotiana

67 cultivars of flowering tobacco exist. Foliage of the nicotiana plant can be large, making the plant bushy.

  • The cultivar Alata has leaves which may grow to 10 inches, with up to 4 inch blooms. This is one of the most fragrant of the varieties.
  • Sylvestris may reach a height of 3 to 5 feet with fragrant white flowers.
  • The Merlin series reaches only 9 to 12 inches and is appropriate for use in a front border or as part of a container planting.

Nicotiana will begin to bloom in early summer. After each set of blooms, prune plants as needed. Pinch or deadhead spent flowers to promote reblooming.

Plants are annuals that are very susceptible to frost. Cover them up whenever cold temperatures are expected.

Native to the Southern Americas and Australia

Nicotiana are good “re-seeders”. They will drop lots of tiny seeds for next year’s crop. Mark off the area, and allow new plants to grow in the spring.  Do not disturb the soil until seedlings have begun to grow. Thinning will likely be needed.

Tobacco plant (Nicotiana)
The 67 species of Nicotiana hail from Australia, North America, and tropical South America. All have tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers that usually open in the evening and at night, sometimes releasing a potent fragrance. They can be used as specimen or bedding plants, in borders, woodland gardens or containers. Heights range from less than 1 foot to over 10 feet.
Noteworthy characteristics: Long-blooming, attractive plants with trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of green, white, red, and pastels. Some species have attractive foliage. Fairly easy to grow from seed. Contact with the hairy foliage may irritate skin.
Care: Full sun to part shade in fertile, moist soil with good drainage. Stake plants that are not grown in sheltered locations.
Propagation: To get Nicotianas going, you could just scatter seed in early spring, but you won’t get much of a display until August. For earlier blooms, start the minuscule seeds inside 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost date at 64°F. Seeds should be surface-sown since they need light to germinate. In 10 days or so, the seeds sprout and soon form attractive little rosettes. Leaves yellow quickly if the seedlings get hungry. Feed with a weekly draught of fish emulsion and water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer, using each at half strength. As the frost-free date nears, gradually acclimate seedlings to life outdoors. By early summer, nicotianas started indoors should be in bloom. Many species self-sow. Jasmine Tobacco

This short nicotiana bears fragrant, flat, star-like flowers in many colors: crimson, purple, wine, rose, pink, lime green, and white. It is a day-bloomer with uniform size and compact habit. Cultivars vary in height: from ‘Domino’ (12 inches),  ‘Nicki’ (20 inches), and ‘Sensation’ (36 inches), up to ‘Grandiflora’ (48 inches), as well as flower color and foliage. Blooms face upward or horizontally and remain open in full sun.
Noteworthy Characteristics: Ideal as a summer bedding annual. Foliage may irritate skin.

 Flowering Tobacco Sylvestris

This thick-stemmed annual or short-lived perennial reaches 5 to 6 feet tall, forming a large basal rosette of dark green leaves to 36 inches long. Lightly fragrant, long and tubular white flowers dangle in dense clusters from atop the tall stems. This plant starts blooming in late July or August. Flowers close in full sun.
Noteworthy Characteristics: Ideal for the mixed border or semi-wild garden. Foliage may irritate skin.


3 ft. to 6 ft.
1 ft. to 3 ft.

 Coral Bells


Part Sun, Shade, Sun




1 to 3 feet


6-30 inches wide

Hellebore Hellebore

Flowers of hellebores are a welcome sight when they bloom in late winter to early spring, sometimes while still covered with snow. Different varieties of the hellebore plant offer a range of flower colors, from white to black. One of the earliest blooms spotted in many areas, nodding hellebore flowers are often fragrant and long-lasting.

When planting from seed or division, place the hellebore into well-draining, organic soil in a filtered sun or shady location. The hellebore plant will return for many years; make sure the space will accommodate growth and has proper sunlight. Hellebores need no more than a few hours of dappled light and grow successfully in shady areas. Plant the hellebore under deciduous trees or scattered through a woodland garden or shaded natural area

  Christmas Rose

 Lenten Rose

Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, features 3-inch blooms of the purest white. Many hybrids of hellebores offer a range of flower colors, colors often change as they mature.

Hellebore care is simple and worthwhile. Plant a variety of hellebores in your garden in the shade for a lovely spring flower.

Hardiness will vary with species, but most Hellebores are rate USA Hardiness Zones 4-9.

Mature Size:

The foliage forms a low clump, but when the plants are in bloom, they reach a height of about 1 ½ – 2 ft. and spread 1 – 1 ½ ft. wide


These are shade garden plants. Hellebores prefer partial to full shade. They can handle spring sun, but plant them in a spot that will become shadier as trees and other plants flush out. T

Bloom Period

Blooming depends on both the species and your climate. The Christmas Rose (H. niger) can bloom in December in Zones 7 or warmer, but rarely blooms until spring in colder climates. Most species can be counted on to bloom somewhere between December to April and will stay in bloom for a month or longer.

ferns outside Ferns

maidenhair-ferns Maidenhair Fern

lady-ferns Lady Fern 3′ Tall

 Autumn Fern

 Male Fern to 5′ Tall

Japanese Painted Fern

Japanese Painted Fern

It’s tough to imagine lovelier shade plants than Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum). This beauty offers fronds liberally dappled with silver, burgundy, and green. Plus, it’s a low-growing, slow-spreading plant that grows in shade. And, deer and rabbits usually leave it alone. It grows best in Zones 5-8 and gets about 12 inches tall.

Top picks: ‘Silver Falls’ has especially metallic leaves; ‘Burgundy Lace’ has lots of rich purple-red tones in the leaves.

Plant it with: ‘Burgundy Glow’ ajuga or ‘Green Spice’ coralbells — all have silvery and purple tones in their foliage.


Bigroot Geranium

Bigroot Geranium

One of the toughest plants that grow in the shade garden, bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) doesn’t mind heat or drought. And, deer and rabbits typically pass it by in search of tastier morsels. This shade plant puts on a spring show with pink or white flowers; some varieties also offer outstanding fall coloration in their woodsy-scented foliage. Bigroot geranium is hardy in Zones 4-8 and grows 2 feet tall.

Toad Lily

Toad Lily

Put on a fall show with shade plant toad lily (Tricyrtis). This easy-to-grow perennial offers unique flowers that are often compared to orchids. Many are spotted with shades of purple or blue.

Top Picks: ‘White Towers’ bears white flowers; ‘Tojen’ offers especially large lavender flowers.

Plant it with: Let toad lily rise up behind a clump of medium-sized hostas or fern-leafed bleeding heart.

1 to 3 feet tall



A great plant with an unfortunate name, lungwort (Pulmonaria) earned its moniker from the silvery, lung-shaped spots that dot the foliage of these plants that grow in shade. The variegated foliage looks great all season long, but is an especially nice accent to the clusters of pink, white, or blue flowers in spring. Lungwort grows best in Zones 4-8 and reaches

1 foot tall.

Test Garden Tip: Because its foliage is somewhat hairy, deer and rabbits typically leave lungwort alone.

Top picks: ‘Opal’ features ice-blue flowers; ‘Trevi Fountain’ features cobalt-blue blooms.

Plant it with: Japanese painted fern or ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera for a delightful silver-on-silver play.

Yellow Corydalis

  • Yellow Corydalis

    This hard-working perennial plant that grows in shade takes the prize for being the longest bloomer in the sheltered garden. Enjoy its clusters of yellow flowers from late spring all the way to frost. It’s not just the flowers that are beautiful; the gray-green leaves of these shade plants are attractive as well. The plant grows about 12 inches tall and is hardy in Zones 5-8.

    Test Garden Tip: This plant can be a prolific self-seeder.

    Top picks: Corydalis lutea is the easiest to grow and the longest blooming. White corydalis (Corydalis ochroleuca) also flowers over an extended period.

    Plant it with: Accent the plant’s bright flowers against dark green hellebore or hosta foliage.



Starting in mid-spring, Lamium produces clusters of pink or white flowers. This delightful groundcover can rebloom off and on through the summer, creating months of color. And even when its not blooming, the silver-infused foliage of these shade plants brighten up shady corners. Lamium usually stays about 8 inches tall and grows best in Zones 4-8.

Tip: Keep lamium looking good by keeping it moist. If it dries out too much, the leaves will develop brown edges.

Top picks: ‘White Nancy’ offers white flowers and silver foliage with a green edge; ‘Beacon Silver’ bears pink flowers and silvery leaves.

Plant it with: Let lamium cover the ground underneath a colony of martagon lilies or an understory tree such as a redbud.



An under-used plant that grows in shade that deserves a lot more attention, Epimedium has it all when it comes to shade plants. The groundcover blooms in spring in shades of red, orange, yellow, pink, purple, or white; it tolerates dry shade; and it’s deer- and rabbit resistant. Some varieties are evergreen in mild-winter areas; others offer good fall color. Most types grow best in Zones 5-9 and reach about 1 foot tall.

Top Picks: ‘Niveum’ offers pure white flowers; ‘Sulfureum’ offers yellow blooms.

Plant it with: Create delightful contrast with epimedium’s shield-shaped foliage against the lacy leaves of yellow corydalis



In spring, shade gardens sparkle with the sky-blue flowers of Brunnera. When not in bloom, its large, robustly textured leaves continue to look great — especially if you grow a variegated type of these shade plants. While the plant is often short-lived, it does tend to self-seed, becoming a long-term presence in the garden.

Test Garden Tip: Brunnera is somewhat deer- and rabbit resistant.

Top Picks: ‘Hadspen Cream’ offers green leaves broadly edged in creamy white; ‘Jack Frost’ has green leaves heavily overlaid with silver.

Plant it with: Go for a lovely blue-on-blue combination with forget-me-not.

Heart-leaf brunnera Heart-Leaf Brunnera 1′ – 3′ Tall

 Jack Frost 1′ – 1.5′

Japanese Forestgrass

Japanese Forestgrass

Japanese forestgrass (Hakonechloa macra) is a wonderful grass for plants that grow in shade. It offers a lovely waterfall-like habit and variegated varieties have bight gold, yellow, or white in the foliage. In fall, the leaves of these shade plants usually pick up beautiful reddish tones. It grows best in Zones 5-9 and grows a foot tall.

Top Picks: ‘Aureola’ bears bright yellow leaves with dark green edges; ‘All Gold’ has even brighter golden foliage.

Plant it with: Add zing to a shady corner by planting Japan



Lilyturf (Liriope) is an easy-to-grow favorite shade plant. Loved for its grassy foliage and spikes of blue or white flowers in late summer, as well as its resistance to deer and rabbits, lilyturf is practically a plant-it-and-forget garden resident. It grows best in Zones 5-10 and grows a foot tall.

Test Garden Tip: Lilyturf can be a fast, almost aggressive spreader when it’s happy.

Top Picks: ‘Majestic’ offers narrower leaves and deep purple-blue flowers; ‘Silver Dragon’ offers boldly variegated foliage and violet-blue blooms.

Plant it with: Create an interesting look by planting Japanese forestgrass with a deep green lilyturf.



Monkshood (Aconitum) is a noteworthy plant that grows in shade because it blooms in late summer, when most other shade bloomers have finished. Plus, it’s deer- and rabbit-resistant. Named for its drooping blue flowers that resemble the hood on a monk’s robe, this lovely shade plant is an easy, under-used plant. It grows best in Zones 3-7 and grows up to 6 feet tall.

Top Picks: ‘Bressingham Spire’ offers violet-blue flowers on 3-foot-tall plants; ‘Stainless Steel’ offers steel-blue flowers on 4-foot-tall plants.

Plant it with: Kirengeshoma, a beautiful, but under-used perennial with bold foliage and yellow flowers in late summer

Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart

Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart

Fern-leaf bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia andD. formosa) look beautiful all season. These shade plants bloom on and off from spring to fall (if they get enough moisture during hot, dry periods), producing delicate clusters of pink, red, or white flowers. Even when not in bloom, though, their tidy mounds of blue-green, ferny foliage looks great. They grow best in Zones 4-8 and grow up to 2 feet tall.

Top Picks: ‘Bacchanal’ offers dark red flowers; ‘King of Hearts’ offers rose-pink flowers and stays about 1 foot tall; ‘Aurora’ offers white blooms.

Plant it with: Create a subtle contrast by planting fern-leaf bleeding heart with yellow corydalis.

 Gold Heart

 King of Hearts 1′ Tall


Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

Old-fashioned bleeding heart

Dicentra spectabilis is a 2- to 3-foot-tall springtime bloomer with long arching branches of dangling heart-shape blooms. It usually goes dormant in summer, so pair it with a plant that will fill in its space later in the year. Zones 3-9

White old-fashioned bleeding heart

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’ has the same qualities as regular old-fashioned bleeding heart except its flowers are pure white. Zones 3-9

Tall Plants for the Back

5′ Tall

Male Fern

4′ Tall

Monkshood – ‘Stainless Steel’ offers steel-blue flowers on 4-foot-tall plants.


3′ Tall

Lady Fern

Monkshood – ‘Bressingham Spire’ offers violet-blue flowers on 3-foot-tall plants

Coral Bells

2′ Tall



Bigroot Geranium

Toad Lily

Brunnera – Heart-Leafed

Fern-Leaf Bleeding Heart

Old-Fashioned Bleeding Heart

1′ Tall

Japanese Painted Fern


Yellow Corydalis


Brunera – Jack Frost

Japanese Forestgrass

Lilytruf Liriope

King of Hearts Bleeding Heart


Lamium 8″



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